Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates

by Tom Robbins
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Switters considers himself to be a "free man," as in the Hindu quotation that opens the first part of the book. When Maestra accuses him of not liking animals, he denies it, saying, "It's cages I dislike. Cages and leashes and hobbles and halters. It's the taming I dislike . . . domesticity shrinks the soul of the beast." To Switters, dogmatism is the same as cages, leashes, hobbles, and halters. He refuses to be bogged down in absolutes. Robbins uses Switters, a self-styled "absurdist," to illustrate both the conflict between good and evil and the quest for enlightenment central to the book. When approached from a dogmatic perspective, Switters easily could be viewed as a drug-using pederast who disrespects the sanctity of a nun's vocation. But Switters has rules about drug use, and in a confused manner, about women as well.

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First, he sees there are drugs that expand one's ego and drugs that cause revelations. He limits his use to the revelatory kinds, because he favors "awe over swagger." So, his rules about drug use are fairly clear; his pursuit of girls, rather than women, is not so clear.

Without any doubt, Switters breaks a taboo of Western culture by lusting after girls, rather than women. Indeed he is obsessed with the idea of femininity: one of his points of pride is that he knows "the word for vagina in seventy-one separate languages." However, he ponders the reasons why in particular he prefers the young ones, at one point hypothesizing that it 146 Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is because "they [give] off the organic equivalent, the biological equivalent . . . of new-car smell." Yet, when presented with an opportunity to consummate his urges for stepsister Suzy, he cannot. He desires youth not as much as he desires innocence and purity.

His pursuits, then, of both Suzy and of Sister Domino Thiry, represent a quest for innocence. Bobby Case, who shares his predilection for girls, warns him against his longing for Suzy, reminding him of the cultural taboo. "Our girls are culturally unprepared for . . . emotional intricacies . . . I know you wouldn't want to muddy her sweet waters." Switters reluctantly agrees. Yet when faced with someone his own age, like the Peruvian Gloria, he thinks she is "a tad old for his specialized taste."

Switters flashes back to time he spent in Bangkok (a city notorious for child prostitution) "in the company of an actual adolescent." It is unclear what happens between the two, but it is clear that Switters understands his own cultural taboos about the young girl, even if they are not shared by her culture. "He bought her a new silk dress, jeans, and a compact disk player. Then he put her on a bus back to her native village with six thousand dollars . . . her brief career as a whore over." He goes on to explain that she will experience no shame, since sexual shame in the way that Westerners experience it does not exist in Thailand. "Not much given to self-analysis," Switters does not stop to consider the contradictions in his own beliefs and behaviors. Switters says, "I think sex is filthy and nasty—and I can't get enough of it." Bobby Case responds, "Paradox! . . . or we could say that innocence and nastiness enjoy a symbiotic relationship." "It is a matter of cultural context," they conclude.

No matter how the reader may feel about this taboo, Robbins, via Switters, does his best to justify it. He reasons that "Ancient Greeks had a concept they called 'eating the taboo,'" in which men would "deliberately break any and all of their culture's prevailing taboos in order to loosen their hold, destroy their power . . . a casting out of demons." Bobby Case is not convinced. "I sure hope Hell has wheelchair access," he tells Switters.

However, Switters's conversations with Masked Beauty and Sister Domino Thiry expand his views of what is beautiful and pure. When Switters...

(The entire section contains 2570 words.)

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